Remembering his great friend John Barry upon the composer’s recent death, lyricist Don Black regaled the press with stories of the “blunt-spoken Yorkshireman” with his divine gift of music. Black relished the tales of Barry’s epic battle with Barbra Streisand which led to the mercurial composer’s departure from Streisand’s The Prince of Tides and his succinct rebuke to producer Harry Saltzman on the producer’s criticism of his theme song for Diamonds Are Forever: “What the f–k do you know about songwriting?” Yet one of John Barry’s most unhappy experiences was also one of his most successful, and audiences were the clear winners when Barry accepted the assignment to write the score to Born Free, which we’ll look at in today’s Friday Feature.
Joy Adamson’s 1960 book Born Free was a natural for the Hollywood treatment. In the novel, Adamson described her life in Kenya caring for an orphaned lion cub named Elsa, eventually releasing the lioness back into the wild. Adamson’s memoir spawned two sequels and was reportedly read by over 50 million people before 1965. A sale of the movie rights was sealed in 1963 by Sam Jaffe and Paul Radin, but the ball wasn’t rolling until Carl Foreman entered the picture as the executive producer or “presenter.” Foreman was a multiple Oscar nominee with credits including High Noon, and a survivor of the Hollywood blacklist. Joseph McCarthy’s long shadow loomed over Born Free; while Foreman had refused to name names in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, Radin had done just that. Lester Cole, signed to write the screenplay for Born Free, actually served prison time as one of the Hollywood Ten for his refusal to answer HUAC’s questions. Foreman vigorously defended Cole, with the end result being that his screenplay was credited to one “Gerald L.C. Copley,” with Cole not receiving credit under his own name until 1997.
John Barry makes his mark on Born Free after the jump!
While shooting would take place on location in Kenya (first under director Tom McGowan and then his replacement in the troubled production, James Hill), the selection of a composer would lead Foreman and co. to London. Enter John Barry. The composer seemed a natural; after all, there was no genre he couldn’t conquer, and he had already scored two Africa-set films, Zulu (1964) and Mister Moses (1965). He had finished Goldfinger to tremendous acclaim and was immersed in rehearsals for his West End musical debut, Passion Flower Hotel, with lyrics by Trevor Peacock. 1965 was a busy year for Barry; upon the opening of Passion Flower, he was scheduled to start scoring Thunderball, and then The Chase. Born Free would fill the prolific composer’s final slot of the year, but clashes with director Hill were almost immediate. (Black asserted that Barry “had no problem telling a director, ‘You’ve ruined the bloody film.'”)
According to Barry, Hill “had all these pretentious ideas” while the composer envisioned a “Disneyesque kind of movie, lovely family entertainment.” Barry’s comparison is a fair one, as the film followed in the footsteps of such animal-oriented Walt Disney films as Old Yeller, The Legend of Lobo and A Tiger Walks, to name a mere few. Foreman, who had enlisted Barry to the Born Free team, gave him the go-ahead to score the movie as he wished. Early plans for a folk pastiche title song were dropped, and Barry called again on Black (who had written lyrics to “Thunderball”) to write the lyrics to his sweeping title tune. Matt Monro, who recorded many Barry and Black songs in his long and esteemed career, was chosen as vocalist for the film version of the song which was to be played at the film’s end. An instrumental arrangement by Barry would accompany the main titles.
Barry recorded the score in a quicker-than-usual fashion, with Foreman promising him under legal threat that he would be allowed to re-record the score for its album presentation as MGM Records E/SE-4368.
John Barry, Born Free: Original Sound Track [sic] Recording (MGM E/SE-4368, 1966 – reissued Film Score Monthly FSM Vol. 7, No. 10, 2004)
- Main Title/Born Free
- The Hunt
- Elsa at Play
- The Death of Pati
- Waiting for Joy
- Killing at Kiunga
- Born Free (Vocal) – Matt Monro
- Holiday with Elsa
- Warthog Hunt
- Fight of the Lioness
- Reunion/Born Free
Barry recalled in Jon Burlingame’s excellent liner notes to Film Score Monthly’s CD reissue of the LP that “it was like the happiest day of my life” upon the score’s completion, adding, “I was delighted to be away from it.” But when the film premiered in London on March 14, 1966 to an audience including the Queen of England, Messrs. Black, Barry and Monro found their anthem deleted from the print! It took two men named Williams to restore the song’s reputation – and place in the film.
Roger Williams (born 1942) was an American pianist in the genre most often described as “easy listening.” Williams’ 1955 recording of “Autumn Leaves” remains the only piano instrumental to reach Billboard’s top spot. Williams latched onto “Born Free” for single release as Kapp K-767. Both the single and ensuing LP, also titled Born Free (Kapp KS 3501, 1967), hit No. 7 on Billboard’s charts despite the changing musical times. Columbia Pictures had no choice: the song had to be reinstated to the film, both to meet audience expectation and to garner the now-expected Academy Award nomination.
MGM’s soundtrack of Barry’s score (actually the re-recording, hence Film Score Monthly’s amending the label copy to “Original Motion Picture Score”) hit No. 42 on the Billboard chart and remained on the chart for nearly a year, while other artists had great success with the song. Foremost among them was Andy Williams (no relation to Roger) whose vocal version anchored his album, also titled (you guessed it!) Born Free (Columbia LP CS-9480, 1967).
The easy listening world of 1967 often drew on the same pool of songs. Hence, both Williamses also recorded “Strangers in the Night” and Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” on their Born Free LPs! Andy’s LP slightly bested Roger’s, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard chart and remaining on the chart for 79 weeks. To this day, it’s Andy Williams’ vocal rendition remembered by many fans of the film, even though Matt Monro’s vocal is the one present. Monro’s Capitol single of “Born Free” was unfortunately eclipsed by these other versions, and didn’t register with American record-buyers, despite being arguably the definitive version. (It reached No. 126 on the “Bubbling Under” chart and No. 35 on Easy Listening.) Monro’s single is the one included on the MGM soundtrack album; it was specifically and subtly re-arranged for records with the addition of a guitar. “Born Free” was a cornerstone of Monro’s impressive repertoire.
John Barry received two Academy Award nominations for his work in the Best Song and Best Score categories. It was Roger Williams selected to perform “Born Free” at the 39th Annual Academy Awards on April 10, 1967. He was joined for this performance by vocal group The Young Americans. “Born Free” bested such stiff competition as Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Alfie” (ironically covered by Andy Williams on his Born Free LP) and Jim Dale and Tom Springfield’s “Georgy Girl.” The busy Barry, having washed his hands of the Born Free affair, stayed home in England. The Best Score presentation came first, with Barry competing against such luminaries as Alex North, Elmer Bernstein and Jerry Goldsmith. Producer Paul Radin accepted the Best Score statue on his behalf. Barry had just won his first Academy Award. A second came shortly thereafter when “Born Free” also picked up Best Song. Black accepted this time, pointedly thanking Foreman, who had initially objected to his lyrics. Golden Globe and Grammy nominations followed for Barry and Black.
The film holds up as well today as the best of those Disney family classics. It spawned both a movie sequel (1972’s Living Free) and a television series (1974’s Born Free). Though Barry wasn’t involved, the television series utilized his theme. Still, John Barry’s score (with Don Black’s lyric contributions) is among the most well-regarded aspects of the film. Film Score Monthly’s CD reissue did not expand upon the original LP, as Barry was happy with the re-recording; in addition, it is not known whether the actual film soundtrack recordings survive. There is much to cherish on this CD, though. Barry’s score isn’t as overtly dramatic as his African-tinged work on Zulu, but it is stirring and emotional, and of course, grandly cinematic. The title theme is first heard with powerful brass and supporting strings, with marimba and log drum adding an exotic touch. “Elsa at Play” is a fun, delicious “Disneyesque” cue as Barry intended. There are other such frolicking and comic cues which make perfect counterpart to the dramatic tension of “The Death of Pati” and “Killing at Kiunga.”
John Barry continued to scale new heights in a variety of genres on stage, screen and record, bringing his virtuosity and single-minded approach to the table each time. As Black said in a statement to the New York Post’s Michael Riedel which stands as a testament to Barry, “When he finally played a song for you, you felt it was an unveiling. He’d wrestled with it himself for so long, it was beyond criticism.”